Sometimes we need to look to the past to find the future. Every family has a history that gives a glimpse as to why we do what we do. Is it in your genes that you are a musician or a lawyer? Is there a reason you are interested in Military history? Is there a reason you are drawn to the ocean or the bush? Sitting at family dinners and listening to stories of places our grandparents grew up in the days before gas and TV, listening of their exploits, the laughs and tragedies sit in the back reaches of the mind and eventually they beckon you to venture out and discover the places they spoke of so fondly and walk the paths they walked or drive the tracks they rode their horses in their youth.
Finding a dusty box full of black and white photographs, my kids ask where they are from and who are the people in the pictures. They're from their grandfather's side of the family that lived in the upper Hunter Valley a long time ago. The faces are unknown to us but a slight resemblance to our kids stares back from the fading black and white prints. Who were they and where were the pictures taken? It was worth investigating. We knew the Grandfather had been born in the Denman district of the Upper Hunter Valley, so a trip was planned with my son to explore the area and see what we could discover about his late Grandad.
Taking the Putty Road via Richmond and Windsor toward Singleton, old and new farms dot the road, before being surrounded the wilderness of the Wollemi and Yengo National parks. It's a reminder of what roads were like before expressways. Renowned for its twists, turns and fast sections, motorcyclists love this stretch of road and The Grey Gum Café is a welcome spot to pull over and have a pie to fill a void or just to stretch the legs.
Further along the road, the Halfway Roadhouse stands abandoned after a fire some years ago. Derelict petrol bowsers shade themselves under the old awning while a tin man guards the deserted building accompanied by a steel minion packing a pair of six-guns. Coming through Bulga, the heritage-listed wooden truss bridge spans the width of Wollombi Brook.
Looking like a Meccano set, it was built in 1912 and 129m long. Only 27 of these truss bridges remain in the state and are a testament to the engineering skills of the day. Driving past the mountains of coal from the Bulga Open Cut Mine, we turn onto the Golden Highway and move from coal fields to field of horses and into Denman.
Settled in 1853 on the banks of the Hunter River, Denman is surrounded by horse studs and vineyards, the main street hosting cafes, art and gift shops. A far cry from the dirt streets, bakers, blacksmiths and stores my wife's father would have walked or ridden his horse along in his youth to pick up supplies or meet his friends on a Saturday afternoon.
Walking past the old shops I look at the reflections in the windows, the ancient glass distorts the light while I try to look back in time and see the faces in the street. The clomp of hooves and clatter of buggy wheels have given way to the sound of car engines and rumble of 4x4 tires rolling by. Like most country towns, it has a laidback charm with the 1900's buildings, wide streets and friendly locals. Enquiries at the information centre regarding a church near Mount Dangar point us toward Sandy Hollow, a few kilometres up the road where we might find what we are looking for.
With the afternoon sun beginning to draw long shadows, we head further west. My Father, in-law when he was still alive, mentioned a church in this area where his father and grandfather were buried but couldn't remember exactly where. We find St Matthews Church almost in the middle of a paddock. In a pretty location overlooked by Mount Dangar, it's a small weatherboard building shaded by a couple of trees.
Nothing remarkable about it except it must have been the centrepiece of the area in its time and the focal point for the Sunday social scene in the years gone by. Stepping amongst the headstones, the drying grass crackles underfoot and magpie sings in the tree. My son and I are astounded to find not just the headstones of his Great grandfather and Great Great Grandfather but of a total of 22 Peberdy's laid to rest in this small innocuous cemetery in the middle of a paddock. The headstones date from the 1880s through to 2010s. No wonder he has a greater liking for the country than the city.
Epitaphs giving a glimpse of their lives. William Peberdy passing on 31 August 1889 aged 79 and 11 months had been a member of the 4th Kings Own Lions of England. A Lancaster regiment dating back to 1688. More research will be needed to find where in the colonies he served. Had he served in the Crimea? Was he part of the detachment used as guards on convict ships coming to Australia from 1837? More questions than answers arise when walking among the bones.
Making camp in the Goulburn River National Park, you realise how peaceful it is to sit in the wilderness with just the bush noises, a gas lantern and the strip of fog in the sky that is the Milky Way. A proper night sky is something we miss in the city these days.
The following morning, we head into Merriwa, another town my father In-law spent his youth, to see if we can uncover more about his side of the family.
Along the road, we encounter a swarm of emu in a paddock, which was interesting in two ways. First, my son had never seen an emu in the wild and secondly, the night before we were harassed by a flock of mosquitoes and now we have a swarm of emu darting through the grass…..odd things you encounter on a road trip. Paddocks create patterns of colour and shapes as we drive the lanes. Hay bales spaced uniformly in even rows stretch to the horizon waiting to be loaded onto a truck and shipped to the stores.
The town is now primarily a service town for the surrounding stations and possibly known more now for its silo painting of sheep in a field. The Silo was painted by Melbourne based artist David Lee Pereira and was the first GrainCorp site in NSW to participate in the silo art trail. A fantastic painting when seen up close. The red socked sheep can also be seen standing guard at the SES in town.
Inquiries at the local museum shed no new information on the family, but it did reveal a dark past of the area. The novel by Thomas Keneally, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith was based on the events of Jimmy Governor, his brother and Jacky Underwood who went on a 3-month murder and robbery rampage. A manhunt involving 2000 volunteers with hundreds of police and trackers were employed and a £1000 reward was posted for their capture. They were finally caught and hung in January 1900.
Just as every town and settlement has a history to tell, every family has a history that is worth investigating. Some might be fascinating; some might be mundane. Just the adventure of driving to the towns they grew up in or lived in is worth the effort. It gives a glimpse of what moulded them, and may it explain things about yourself or your kids. Whether it's a day trip or a weekend trip to trace the paths, there is always something new to discover.